Only after repeated experiments did we conclude with certainty that all children are endowed with this capacity to ‘absorb’ culture… and then we saw them ‘absorb’ far more than reading and writing: botany, zoology, mathematics, geography, and all with the same ease, spontaneously and without getting tired.

~Dr. Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952)

Born in Italy in 1870, Maria Montessori’s natural interest in science led her to enter medical school at a time when the social restrictions of the day made it a difficult career path for a young woman.   Unwavering in her commitment, Montessori became the first woman to be certified as a Doctor of Medicine in Italy in 1896, graduating at the top of her class from the University of Rome.

Montessori’s early career provided her with deep insights into human potential. Her first post required her to work with mentally deficient children in the psychiatric clinic at the University. Ever the student of anthropology, Montessori found that by offering simple tools of exploration to this group of children who had been essentially forgotten by society, they began to respond, to explore, and to thrive in an unforeseen way. This experience led Montessori to delve deeper into the human studies of philosophy, psychology, and education.  If the ‘feeble minded’ children demonstrated such potential, she wondered what might be accomplished using the same methods with children of normal intelligence.

Merging her developing methodology with the educational discoveries of fellow visionaries, Jean Itard and Eduard Seguin, Montessori set out to prepare an environment in which sensory exploration, hands-on learning, and a child-directed approach would prevail.  In 1907 she opened the first Montessori primary classroom to a group of 50 or so children from the San Lorenzo (slum) district in Rome.  She called her school the Casa dei Bambini … the children’s house.

Her classroom became her laboratory and the children of San Lorenzo her subjects. There she developed a solid and scientific pedagogy based upon her anthropological study of the way children learn.  She worked without preconceptions, simply observing their behavior and then developing the educational tools and apparatus that would meet their needs. In the end, her disadvantaged children excelled, surpassing the scores and aptitudes of their ‘normal’ counterparts.  They learned by doing, teaching themselves to be contributing members of their school community, many of them developing the skills and insights needed to move beyond the limitations of their circumstances and into the wider world.

Practical yet passionate, Dr. Montessori devoted her life to this work.  She expanded her curriculum into the elementary years children and beyond, and also provided pedagogical training for those working with toddlers.  Her vision for humanity led her to develop global friendships with the brightest minds of her time, and to be nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her face graces Italy’s 1000 lire bill, and her vision continues to be realized throughout the world, in classrooms and schools bearing her name.

This is Montessori’s legacy and, more than 100 years later, her educational model and the movement it inspired continue to gain momentum … because it works.